Sunday, October 6, 2013

Review: The Thousand Names

"Can you be haunted by someone who isn't dead?"

The Thousand Names (Shadow Campaigns #1)
Django Wexler
528 pages

Rating: 8

+25 points to Hufflepuff for normalized inclusion of a gay character and non-western culture.


This might be the first time in my entire life I read a book without even glancing at the blurb. I literally had no expectations other than what I gleaned from glancing at the cover. A dude with a desert cloak and some swords? So umm...a high fantasy story about some sort of arabian assassin/warrior who has to save a kingdom by overthrowing evil? I went into The Thousand Names almost completely blind.


Oh boy. Oh boy. Usually when you stumble around in the dark, you end up banging your shins and swearing. But sometimes you turn on a light to discover you're in a treasure-filled cave.

The Thousand Names does indeed involve a desert and some kingdoms, but that's about all I got right. Khandahar (read: the middle east/north africa) is in an uproar due to a recent religious uprising. They expelled the unbelievers, their old royalty, and the Vordanai Colonials (read: europeans). But a new Colonial colonel has arrived lead the army to retake Khandahar and reinstate the former government. The narrative alternates primarily between Captain Marcus D'Ivoire, who heads up a Colonial garrison, and Winter Ihernglass, a rank-and-file soldiers just trying to get by without anyone finding out she's secretly a woman. There are also some snippets from one of the Khandahari leaders to give a taste of what's happening from their perspective. It follows them from battle to battle across the country, into more and more complicated personal and political situations, and ultimately toward some strange magics.

Wexler's choice of narrators is absolutely perfect. When dealing with a story involving grand armies and politics, it's easy to get lost, but he's has brought the story down to a personal level. The plot is intriguing and clever, but it's carried on the shoulders of the characters. The writing is so clear that I know these people. None of them are one dimensional or lost in the mix, not even the side characters. Wexler doesn't even neglect the back-story.

It was also an inspired decision to have the main characters not be, well, the Main Heroic Characters. That probably needs clarification, so here goes: Marcus, while certainly a senior captain leading up the army, isn't the guy in charge of everything. That's the fantastic, enigmatic Colonel Janus (who reminded me of Terry Pratchett's Patrician Vetinari). Winter, while smart, capable, and qualified, isn't some sort of graceful, "blades flashing in the sun" warrior woman. She's just a scrawny soldier with some brains, trying to escape a difficult past and a lover she left behind. They're just people. It reminded me a lot of Joe Abercrombie, a favored author of mine, though without the grimdark "the world is full of fucking ugliness and bastards" tone; just a story about some people trying to get by in a rough world the best they can.

I love these people. All of them, even the total bastards and the ones I just knew were secret spies and sorcerers. I have opinions about them that I want to share. I want to introduce them to my friends. I found myself caring about battle tactics because they cared. I realize I've strayed into gushing instead of reviewing, but I can't help it. I'm sure there are flaws (the first few chapters are too in-media-res and it took me a while to get oriented and invested), and sequels will reveal if Wexler can handle the genre shift from this sword-and-sorcery soldier's tale to the epic-fantasy toward which he's building. But I'm just too damn glad I found this book to care.

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